Even with e-books, tablets and an array of screens, research shows that physical books still play an important role in kids’ learning how to read. That was one of the points made by Susan Dibble, the executive director of the early literacy program Page Ahead. 

In this edition of Ed Lab Live, Dibble speaks about how her organization is partnering with schools across the state to get books into the hands of young readers. They created a virtual book fair to let kindergartners through second graders who don’t have ready access to books choose which ones to take home. She also shared tips on helping your children learn to read even if you don’t have many books in your home.

Ed Lab Live is a series of short conversations with people navigating the new world of education. Find the schedule of upcoming events below and watch past episodes here.

Page Ahead, a statewide nonprofit in Washington, helps young kids develop and maintain reading skills, partially by giving them books. Susan Dibble talks about ways to support literacy during the pandemic.

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Upcoming events:

Friday, May 15, at 11 a.m. — Girls across the nation struggle to get feminine hygiene products. Schools being closed can make that even harder. Eighth graders Izzy Masias and Audrey Williams started stocking bathrooms at their middle school in Rochester, Wash., with tampons, pads and other products. Now they’re taking their project, No Problem. Period., to people’s houses. Please follow this link to register. 

Monday, May 18, at 1 p.m. — The stresses of physical distancing and living through a pandemic are hard on your mental health. Anna Kim, a therapist with Youth Eastside Services, will talk about what it’s like to seek mental health services now and what she’s learning as she works with youth and families. Please follow this link to register. 

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Transcription of Susan Dibble interview, lightly edited

Anne Hillman: I would like to invite everybody to Ed Lab Live. Education Lab is Seattle Times’ education-focused reporting project. And normally we’d have in-person events, but that’s not quite as possible as it used to be. So now we’re having these short virtual events, talking about how the world of education is changing due to the pandemic. And today, my guest is Susan Dibble, who is the executive director of Page Ahead. And we’re gonna be talking about Page Ahead and childhood literacy. Susan, I would love it if you could tell us a little bit about what exactly Page Ahead is, in case folks haven’t heard about it.

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Susan Dibble: Sure. As you mentioned, Anne, we’re a childhood literacy organization. We were founded about 30 years ago, and it’s kind of a treat for me to be on this because in the early days, when Page Ahead was just getting started, The Seattle Times was very instrumental in getting it off the ground. So back then we were called Books for Kids, and to a large degree that is still our mission. We provide new books for kids. And these days, our focus is really on kids who are really furthest from educational justice. The kids that are least likely to have books at home are the kids we exist to serve.

And our largest program is a summer reading program called Book Up Summer. We are right in the middle of that right now. And that program starts kindergarten through second graders. We really built those home libraries, get kids picking books that they’re excited about, and then they’re more likely to read them and keep their reading skills up when school isn’t in session.

Anne: OK, so physical books. Why do you need those anymore? Because we have so — it’s a horrible thing to say, you probably see my bookshelf behind me — but you know, why? Why get those into the hands of kids?

Susan: So, well, there are a few reasons. And obviously, in the beginning, when Page Ahead was founded, there wasn’t an alternative. There was no e-book back then. But today, part of the reason we still do what we do is the need is clear. I mean, the research around e-books and children is not encouraging, right? Young children, when they’re learning to read, they really don’t get much from an e-book. They really do still need the paper. There’s really no evidence that reading an e-book helps kids.

Anne: But, I mean, it’s the same images, the same words, so why?

Susan: There are theories, and you can go and there’s lots out there. The leading one that I’ve seen is really the tactile nature of reading. And for a lot of reading specialists, if they’re on this call, they know that reading and writing are also very closely related, and the actual act of using your hand to write, it’s a connection in the brain. A lot of researchers feel like turning the pages of the book and having the eye go — there’s something about that, that also helps the brain recognize with word recognition and things like that. And then it’s that tactile piece that is part of the reason. I’m not a researcher, but I can understand that point of view.

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And then I also think, you know, the illustrations and just the beauty of a printed book, and especially when we’re talking about the kids that Page Ahead is serving. These are young children who are learning to read, and it’s a shared reading experience. So a lot of those books are in a larger format, right, a big picture book, and you’re sharing it with an adult, and the adult is helping you. So that’s more difficult to do with a phone or an iPad or something, if you think about it. I think there’s a lot of different things at play there, but it all points to that the paper book is still number one.

Anne: So it’s physical books that you’ve been getting them into people’s hands. Tell us a little bit about how you normally do that and then how you’re doing it now.

Susan: A couple of weeks ago, I might not have been able to answer this question, Anne, but we are learning a lot at Page Ahead. With our largest program, Book Up Summer, we would typically be going into schools around this time between now and the end of June. And we go in with a book fair, like a real book fair like you probably had as a kid, right, where the metal cases that get rolled into the library. You know, people could go and pick. Our program is very similar. We have bookcases come in there, the difference is that it is only books, there aren’t any of the other little tchotchkes or things that at fairs. No pencils and no diaries. And the students pick 12 books. And then they bag them up, and then they get to take them home for summer reading. They get to keep them, you know, forever. We have kids that start in kindergarten, and then they’re in the program for three years. So every year so at the end of kindergarten, and the first and a second they get to pick. So that’s a typical way that it works.

Anne: OK, and but why picking? Cause there’s all these programs like Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library and they just send books to folks. Why does it matter that they get to choose?

Susan: So choosing is important for a couple of reasons. The research is pretty clear about the role of choice for a child, so what you’re trying to do with this program is drive motivation, reading motivation. And it’s very motivating for a child, especially a child who doesn’t have books at home, or a child, you know, think about it. If you’re a kid from a low-income family, how often do you get to pick what you want, right? Like on anything, a lot of stuff, you know, you’re getting hand-me-downs, you’re getting, you know, I mean, you kind of get what you get. But here’s an opportunity for you to pick 12 books that are of interest to you. It’s very motivating for a child. So that’s part of it. And then the research also shows that we all of us retain about 50% more of what we read, if we’ve chosen the reading material ourselves. So it’s about comprehension and retention.

Anne: OK. That is an argument against book clubs.

Susan: So don’t let me start on that! But I will say that what we’re talking about is getting kids to read joyfully at home. Right? Why wouldn’t you have them pick? I mean, why would you do the picking? That makes no sense? You want them to, I mean, does anyone tell you what to read, Anne? [laughter] Or pick for you? No, we all love to have choice. And I think that that’s no different if you’re in kindergarten, or if you’re 50. Like me.

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Anne: So now that obviously you’re not having book fairs. So how are you helping the kids choose books now?

Susan: They are still getting to pick and through the magic of the internet, this thing is gonna happen. It has been quite a pivot for a lot of people. This has required the efforts of vendors. My staff has been heroic. The schools have been heroic. They’re incredible. And so everybody is working together so that these book fairs are going out. And they are, the families get to choose online. They’re hearing about the program from their teachers. And they will pick their 12 books. And then magically, the books will come to their schools. And they will be distributed, which is where the true heroism lies.

So, largely what most of our schools are doing, they’re using their meal sites as book pickup sites. Many of our schools are offering school meals, and then a lot of them are also doing homework packets. So it’s an opportunity for kids. So we’re basically piggybacking delivery on things that they’re already doing, which helps with, you know, social distancing, and having a safe way to be able to do that. The best way to do it is to engage in something that’s already happening.

So that’s probably going to be the number one way. Schools are getting into the point now where they are making plans for wrapping up year-end. So things like returning your stuff, like your library books or your technology that the school has provided to you. We serve schools across the state and everybody was in a little bit of a different situation when the shutdown happened. Some of their stuff is still in their desks. The coat is in the coat closet. All of these different schools and districts are trying to develop ways, and still in a very responsible manner, but to sort of wrap this up. So we’re just kind of piggybacking delivery of the books on top of what they’re already doing.

Anne: So you’re getting books into the hands of some kids who are participating in your programs. What about other families that don’t get to participate in this program? What kinds of tips or advice do you have for them to help their kids keep on this journey of reading even though they’re not in schools?

Susan: I feel for families because I think, you know, there’s been a lot of reporting about how the pandemic has exposed these divides in our society of the haves and the have-nots. And I really do feel for families that you know, you’re cut off from your normal source of materials for school, the libraries. You know, it’s really challenging for families. What we typically tell folks is there are all kinds of books that are out there, there’s Little Free Libraries, there’s Goodwill, there’s all kinds of places that you can access books, very inexpensively and that you know, you have these opportunities. Obviously right now it’s trickier. I mean, like if they’re in Seattle, most of the libraries have some sort of online ability for you to get books digitally. But otherwise, right now, it is kind of a trickier time.

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But what we encourage families is, again, let your child choose the books that they’re interested in, and then read the books that you have at home. Ask them to read to you. Ask them questions about what they’re reading, that’s just showing that kind of interest is really great. And that all kinds of reading is good. So it can be the cookbook, they’re helping you cook something for dinner. It can be that they’re reading the comics, a graphic novel.

It doesn’t — there isn’t like a, they’re not like a better book, right? Like, oh, these are better than these books. For children who are learning to read, what really matters is doing it over and over again. Repetition is actually the number one thing. It’s consistency. OK, so if that’s a graphic novel, and they are super excited about dog man, or the bad guys, or some of these other books, then have at it. So, and actually, you know, some of those books actually have kind of some hard words in them. It’s really about consistency. Enjoyment.

Anne: We have a question from the audience. Enrique would like to know, how can we get your service at my school? My school is a designated food and resource pickup school.

Susan: Well, is there a way that I can contact him afterward to find out where he is and see? I’d love to get Enrique his contact info.

Anne: Yeah, Enrique, you can if you go into chat, you can send your info just to panelists and only Susan and I will get it. Or I’ll figure it out. I will figure out some way to connect. I’ll type in my email as well. So are you all accepting more schools? Is it too late?

Susan: We have been. So I really feel like the pandemic, again, has exposed these divides. And that things that people have always kind of felt was there, it’s really just laid bare. And that what a lot of families are telling school staff when they get there is we need physical things. We need, you know, books for kids to read, the food, the meals is extremely helpful, paper packets to do the homework. They’re just, it’s very difficult if you have multiple kids at home.

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You’re trying to track the emails from all the different teachers, and you’ve got this over there and you’re trying to work and it’s very challenging for families. Even for families of means, it’s challenging, but for families that don’t have those things, this is a crisis. And they really need that extra support. So we are getting a lot of folks that are interested, even schools we don’t normally serve. And we’re trying we have books at Page Ahead and we have resources, so we are trying to connect that as much as possible and serve more students this year.

Anne: OK, and even once schools closed, will you be able to get resources, like books, to kids?

Susan: Well, a lot of schools, you know, are extending their meal programs through the summer. They’re doing things, there’s a lot of them making plans. And again, this varies across the state. It’s very, you know, everybody’s doing different things. So we can try to help for as long as there is that piggyback mechanism. If we can piggyback the book delivery on top of some of the other things that they’re doing then yes, it is possible.

Anne: And you have the funding to expand to more schools?

Susan: It’s about the money, isn’t it?

Anne: I don’t mean for it to be, but, yeah, to a degree, it is.

Susan: It is. It is not free, right. Like Page Ahead’s cost for Book Up Summer for one child is about $45 per student.

Anne: Oh, that’s, much less than I thought.

Susan: I’m sure it is. We have a pretty good supply chain. I mean, we’ve worked for a long time at this. But if you add a school, you know, one school could be … I mean, I took a call today where they’re like, “Hey, we have 2,000 kids.” I’m like, “Hmm, that’s a lot of kids.” So they might have funding, they need our help. But they might be able to handle the payment somehow. There are mechanisms that schools have that maybe it wouldn’t normally be available to them, but because the pandemic has opened up some things, so we are trying to troubleshoot.

We might be able to help you on the infrastructure side getting the books, using our vendor, all these things, pricing, but we might not be able to fully pay for you and then try to work that out. But yes, we’re accepting donations, Anne, of new books and funds. If you’re looking to do a fundraiser or like make a difference in their community, boy, would we ever use it! Our website is pageahead.org.